There has been a sharp increase in the number of catalytic converters being stolen across the country, resulting in vehicles stacking up in dealership service departments as customers endure costly and lengthy repairs and manufacturers, police and legislators search for a way to curb the thefts.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau said there were 14,433 catalytic converter thefts reported in the U.S. in 2020, the last year figures were available. That's a fourfold increase from 3,389 theft cases reported in 2019. In 2018, there were just 1,298 thefts reported. Officials hinted that 2021 figures could show a dramatic increase.
On one day in April in Houston, AutoNation Toyota Gulf Freeway had 66 vehicles waiting to have their catalytic converters replaced after thieves stole them. Two of those vehicles were back for a second time after being targeted again.
While any vehicle can fall prey to thieves, some Toyota models are coveted because their catalytic converters have a higher concentration of precious metals than those of other manufacturers, so they command higher prices.
Pickups such as Toyota's Tundra and Tacoma are popular with converter bandits because they can have up to four converters and sit relatively high off the ground. That makes it easier for thieves to slip underneath and use a cordless saw to remove the mufflerlike converters, said Craig Fletcher, service director at AutoNation Toyota Gulf Freeway. Toyota Prius hybrids and SUVs and certain Honda four-cylinder vehicles are also particularly prized, as are Ford F-Series and Ram 1500 pickups.
"It's been a constant problem for the last 12 months," Fletcher said. "Approximately a year ago, the price of the materials that Toyota uses for the converters went through the roof."
Catalytic converters contain just a few grams of costly metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. The rare elements react with combustion gases to reduce the amount of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide in a vehicle's exhaust.
Rhodium's current market price is about $16,600 per ounce. Platinum is trading for around $919 an ounce, while palladium is in the neighborhood of $2,200 per ounce.
The skyrocketing value of the converters makes comprehensive auto insurance a must-have, said Sgt. Tracy Hicks of the Houston Police Department's Auto Theft Crime Task Force. Replacing catalytic converters can run as high as $11,000, depending on the vehicle and any collateral damage to items such as wiring and fuel, transmission or coolant lines.
Hicks said certain Toyota converters were bringing $2,000 when the price of the metals skyrocketed last year.
Depending on the market price of metals, the powertrain and type of vehicle, recyclers will pay up to $1,500 for a single catalytic converter, said Doug Seliger, marketing director of PGM of Texas, which specializes in catalytic converter recycling. A set of four Tundra converters, for example, is currently bringing $500 to $1,000, he said.